CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints will have to wait another week for a chance to clinch a playoff spot. It will be their last chance.
The Saints needed a win over the Panthers to wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye. Or, at the very least, an Arizona loss to clinch a playoff spot.
They got neither.
Instead, the Saints headed back to the Big Easy knowing they will need to beat Tampa Bay next week to qualify for the postseason following a 17-13 loss at Carolina on Sunday. They can also qualify if Arizona loses or San Francisco loses twice.
"Right now just trying to take this, because it's obviously tough with so much on the line for us personally," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "... Obviously we have to play better and we just have to finish. When you are up like that you want to win those tight ones. When you want to get into the playoffs you can't lose those."
Drew Brees called the loss "painful," but said the key is to take from the positives.
"It's all out there in front of us," Brees said. "Obviously, we need some help in order to win the division and be the two seed, but the fact of the matter is all we can worry about is what is ahead of us."
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta. The Saints would win the division if they beat the Buccaneers and Carolina loses to the Falcons.
The manner in which the Saints lost was particularly tough.
Cam Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to get the Panthers their first playoff berth since 2008 before more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
Newton had been limited to 116 yards passing in the game's 59 minutes. But the defense, dominant all day, gave him one last chance to win by forcing the Saints to go three-and-out.
Newton took over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55 seconds left, no timeouts, a sore ankle and his best receiver, Steve Smith, on the sideline with a knee injury.